A Passion for Still Life

I started doing photography to get better pictures of my garden—the iPhone 4s was not cutting it. I never considered becoming a photographer; it simply wasn’t a consideration. Nor did I intend for photography to become a hobby. The cost and bother of getting film developed led me to take a darkroom class because, after a few months, it became clear that I was going to be shooting more than flowers. However, even then, I never thought of myself as a photographer; I was just a guy solving practical problems.  

My view of what exactly I was doing with a growing collection of cameras and making prints in a darkroom was called into question by a classmate. Once, while the class was reviewing and critiquing images, the woman sitting next to me said, “You’re really into still lifes, huh?” Beyond flowers, I had never given much thought to the subjects I chose. I shot whatever seemed interesting to me. Her comment, and looking at the work of classmates, made me realize I did not have a single picture of a person. It also made me realize that it had never crossed my mind to photograph a person. That comment was more than a year ago, and I still have not made a single picture of a person unless someone stepped into a frame as I was shooting. Today, with a collection of cameras, film in the freezer, and enough chemicals stored for the apocalypse, it’s time to admit to myself that I have moved way beyond documenting my garden.

I am indebted to my classmate for mentioning still life photography. Since my initial foray into photography was purely practical, I had no reason to consider photography beyond that goal. I was solving a problem. But her comment stuck with me and led me to start looking at photography books, then art books, to see why she had made the comment. I have always liked art, and in thinking about my favorite artists, I came to see that the works I liked most were full of light, color, and objects, but rarely people. I suppose that might be why street photography doesn’t capture my interest.  

My search for books, until recently, had not been fruitful. Most still life photography books I found focused more on product photography that art. Fortunately, I have found four books that are precisely what I have been looking for.  

Still Life Photography, by Kevin Best, is a brief ebook, but it is by far the best book I have found specifically about still life photography. It offers plenty of examples and detailed guidance on lighting, perspective, and subject selection. Steve Bavister’s Lighting | for Still Life is a technical masterpiece. It consists of a series of detailed examples that include drawings of equipment set-ups showing exactly how each shot was made. Perfect!!!

I have found two equally good art books, though aimed at painters. Much of what they discuss can be easily applied to photography.  The Art of Still Life, by Todd Casey, is the best in terms of technical help. This textbook, released this year, is filled with beautiful examples, covering theory and practice. The book itself is a work of art. The final book, Impressionist Still Life, by Rathbone Shackleford, is the latest member of my growing (I hope) library. Impressionism is my favorite painting style, and its colors and use of light have affected my life from the time I first encountered Monet and Matisse in my seventh-grade French class. 

Looking over my gear, in addition to cameras, flashes and lenses, there are now lighting stands, reflectors, an incident light meter, and various backdrops. I have a supply of acrylic paint and brushes to create textures and add color to still life backgrounds. I’ve come a long way from wanting better pictures of my garden. I owe my classmate a debt of gratitude. That comment set me on a path that has been nothing but pure joy.

2 Comments

  1. Very good article on still life . Love the book covers the colors. This is what I do when I am painting. You are an artist,still life your talent with the camera is very good, I love the blue vase yellow flower . The eye you have working with the camera instead of the brush still has recognized you as a visual artist .Great work!

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